We use images to communicate ideas and knowledge. But do the images we use affect how the message is perceived?
Images are Useful
Images are useful methods of communication and they are wonderful at encoding information. The cliché “A picture is worth a thousand words” captures the useful aspect of images. But, for vital information, especially information relating to our survival as a species, can an image be enough. I think both “No” and “Yes.” I say “No” because most images have to truncate nuances or compress the informational scope about a topic. I say “Yes” because there is one image that is the object and the subject of its reference.
Look at the cave paintings of Lascaux, France or Alta Mira, Spain where early people told the stories of their hunts and possibly their social groups’ lives. We used images in the Sumerian Bulla to record business transactions.
So it’s no surprise that we use imagery to communicate religious and spiritual ideas. In fact, religious imagery is a major type of cultural treasure. Think about the Parthenon, the Pantheon, the temple Angkor Wat, Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” The Golden Pavillion of Kyoto, the varied illuminated manuscripts by the monks of pre-Renaissance Europe, and yes, the Pyramids in Egypt. And, lately we’ve seen the frenetic pace of first responders’ actions in saving the art treasures in the 2019 fire at Notre Dame in Paris. These are all religious treasures which represent the finest efforts of their creators and their adherents.
Whether one considers themselves a member of the respective beliefs to which these items are associated or not, the artistic and construction qualities of these works can’t be debated. These images are themselves sketches of something else, sketches of unseen realities as portrayed by human hands from some idea gotten by the heads which control those hands. They seek to understand the as-of-yet unseen things in their yearnings of something other.
The image featured above can never be associated with the same system for which Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel. The featured image is religious kitsch. It’s not created with even the faintest pretense of care or dedication. Look, even the packaging is hastily assembled. It will forever only be associated with the temple of quick and dirty materialism, preying upon the (hopefully) sincere-yet-misled. This can not be associated with the previously-mentioned masterpieces.
Intent is Important
The subject”s construction and artistic quality tell us a lot about the producer’s own value of the subject. The carpenter who builds their own table probably spends extra time on the sanding and refinements. But some artisans may not be as skilled as others, I don’t mean to imply their work is less important or of lower quality. The kitsch we see is probably something that no one would miss if they owned and lost it. The producer obviously sees no value in it either. But, what if the buyer is leaning towards the other represented in the kitsch? Is their own heart just kitsch too?
To answer that, let’s look to ancient Athens, Greece. The Athenians were intellectually curious and this curiosity gave them the awareness that there would be things they didn’t know. (I’d even argue that they didn’t think themselves the apex of all culture because of that. A culture would have to be somewhat humble to admit it didn’t know something.) When the biblical writer Paul visited Athens in Acts 17, he found a myriad of religious images, even an altar for “the unknown God.” in Acts 17:34.
The Athenians did a wonderful thing here by admitting to something they didn’t yet know. As a cosmopolitan town, a thinking place, they clearly were aware that they didn’t know some things about the world, even if they were playing it safe with a fail safe approach to being culturally thorough. (They were more respectful than some who claim to make art with nothing.) By the way, Athens is where democracy popped up. I’m just mentioning this.
To continue along this idea of the unknown idea, let me mention the penman of Hebrews, the biblical book. Paul (many think he penned this book) admits to the insufficiencies of his own faith’s temples and high priests: “The place where they serve is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary, just as Moses was warned by God… (Hebrews 8:5).”
Just as a photograph of a friend or loved one can never replace the actual person you love, so all of these temples and beautiful art works can never truly transform you to the existence within the ultimate reality towards which Albrecht Dürers hands yearned.
The Best Image is Enduring Reality
This is where I think there is one important, vital image. But, we didn’t create this image. In fact, I am convinced that this image created us. This image is the object and the subject of its reference. Jesus is that image.
Before Jesus’ many claims to being one with God, the Son of God, and the Messiah (He was certainly bold), I am not aware of any existing claims like that. He claimed to be ultimate reality. His claim is that belief, sacred construction, sacred words, ceremony, or image are all be embodied in Him. In John 8:58 ¹, “Before Abraham, I AM.” Unlike the Athenians, clever as they were, Jesus left no room for that specific unknown. Paul’s shared his sufficient, and specific knowledge of this once unknown now known, with the Athenians in Acts 17.
The Perfect Image
Jesus is the exact image of the Father’s own essence, as we see in Hebrews. Jesus is the crowning instance of a class of artwork, self-portraits by artists themselves. God put Himself into humanity, each member of humanity being made in His image, and in the same moment in which He did this, created all things in such a state so as to enable us to access His self-portrait, allowing us to understand His essence.
If you’ve ever gone to an art museum, looked at a puzzling work of art, and wondered what the hell the artist was up to, then you know what God has prevented: the observer’s ignorance. Jesus Christ is the exact image, exact representation of God’s essence. He’s the image and the reference, the reality all in one.
¹ Jesus claimed to be one with The Father. Several times He made this claim, and each time He met with vicious religious friction.
- Matthew: 5:21-48; 7:21-23; 8:29; 9:1-8; 9:13; 10:32; 10:34-39; 12:12; 12:8; 12:12; 17:5; 17:25-26; 21:13; 21:16; 21:33-41; 22:41-46; 23:10; 23:24; 23:37; 26:63-66; 27:43; 27:54;
- Mark: 1:11; 1:24; 2:7; 5:7; 5:19; 8:27-30; 8:29; 8:31; 9:7; 12:1-12 14:62; 15:26 (irony); 15:32 (irony); 15:38; 15:39; 16:6; 16:9;
- Luke: 1:32-33; 1:35; 2:11; 2:14; 2:25-35; 3:22; 4:35; 8:28; 9:20; 9:35; 19:38; 22:69-71
- John: 1:29; 1:33; 10; 5:18; 19:7